“In 1994, the United States and South Korea were on the brink of war with North Korea, convinced that the North was moving to develop nuclear weapons,” Carter’s story begins.
North Korea had pulled out of the International Atomic Energy Agency and threatened to expel its inspectors. The U.S. was pushing for U.N. sanctions. Tensions were high.
North Korean President Kim Il Sung invited Carter to visit, and Carter went. After two days of talks, Carter and Kim reached a “breakthrough” agreement “to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for the resumption of a dialogue with the United States.”
There was just one problem, Jimmy Carter wasn’t the president.
“Completing his mission to North Korea, former President Jimmy Carter hugged the country’s dictator on Friday and called the trip ‘a good omen,’ the New York Times reported, “but immediately touched off a squabble with the Clinton Administration over whether North Korea had specifically offered to freeze its nuclear weapons development project.”
The Times reported that while the White House had approved and encouraged Carter’s trip, U.S. officials “had not expected to get swept into negotiations that were being carried out on television.” At one point, Secretary of State Warren Christopher woke up foreign ministers in Asia to piece together a response to Carter’s televised comments before he started another negotiating session.
But President Bill Clinton went along with it. He held the first direct talks with North Korea in 40 years and agreed to send $4 billion in energy aid to the country’s “hard-line Communist leadership,” as the Times described them, in exchange for a commitment to freeze and dismantle its nuclear weapons development program.
Clinton declared that he had achieved “an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula,” Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize, and North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon in 2006, a few years after admitting that they’d been violating the accord from the start.
Today North Korea has nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile that can probably reach Alaska. It’s ruled by a crazed boy-dictator who fires missiles as if they were bottlerockets. North Korea is now a threat to the United States, but military action carries horrifying risks of casualties in densely populated South Korea.
Might this story have turned out differently if the moment that Carter describes as “the brink of war” had been handled as an opportunity for maximum leverage? If the use of that leverage failed to prevent war, would military action against North Korea in 1994 have prevented something far more horrific that may yet be ahead of us?
We can only speculate. That’s what Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward did when someone asked him what he thought Bill Clinton would do after he left the White House.
He may have done it.
Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com
Culled from Orange Register